Sunday, May 15, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 3)

One of the most critical components of any Science Fiction setting, whether it is in literature, film, video games, or ttrpgs, is the tone you choose to set with it. Tone is more than just the mood you try to set with the backdrop, it will tell us a lot about who the people in a science fiction setting are, and what kind of world they create

The technology that appears in your campaign will also need to reflect the tone. A Star Trek replicator that can all but end hunger would strip the need for money and that's the need to do dirty jobs that drove the characters in Firefly. Your choice of tone will help you decide what should be in a game, and what should not.

Examples of Tone Choices and How They Drive NPCs and Tech

 Dark and Desperate

A dark and desperate world will be full of dangerous, selfish, and opportunistic people. It will be one where any advanced technology is used to give people an edge over others, and is likey to be restricted to a powerful few. This is the kind of tone that drives TTRPGs like Cyberpunk RED and Shadowrun, and apocalyptic ones like RIFTS and Mutant; Year Zero.

Books: 1984, Atlas Shrugged, The Expanse, the Ghost World and Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green, A Scanner Darkly

Movies: Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days, the Mad Max series, Dark City, Looper, Children of Men, Screamers, Aliens, Repo: the Genetic Opera, Enemy Mine

Television: The Expanse series, Sanctuary, Fringe

Video Games: BioShock, Dead Space, Borderlands, Half-Life, Deus Ex


An optimistic setting will likely be full of people who have access to technology that makes life easier and enables them to create, explore, and become their best possible selves. People will be driven, well-educated, and have strong morals in such a setting. This is how Start Trek based or inspired science fiction games 

Books: Foundation, I, Robot, 

Movies: Back to the Future, Lilo and Stitch the Star Trek films, The Fifth Element,

Television: Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Andromeda, Earth 2, Lost in Space

Video Games: Starbound, Astroneers, Dark Cloud 2, No Man's Sky


A sleazy science fiction setting will likely be one where the technology lets people explore, travel between worlds, and includes impressive tools and weapons, but where noone's life is easy, everyone still has to work hard to survive. If technology can really make lives easy and fulfilling, it belongs to powerful criminals and corrupt governments that have a vested interest in keeping you down. If there are aliens, they are a lot like human beings: hungry, horny, and looking for a chance to line their pockets. This is what Alpha Blue and Machinations of the Space Princess both do exceptionally well.

Books: The Druuna series, Kushiel's Dart, The High Couch of Silistra, the Gor series, Lilith's Brood, Alien Sex, The Naked Lunch, Transmetropolitan

Movies: Barbarella, Heavy Metal, Cherry 2000, Hell Comes to Frog Town, Femalien, Species, Barb Wire, Wicked City, Critters 2, Cocoon

Television: Lexx, Cleopatra 2535

Video Games: Fallout: New Vegas, Duke Nukem 3D


A gonzo science fiction setting is going to have just about every possible sort of technology in it, but not all in one place. Most people are going to be at least a little ignorant and backward, understanding only the tech they use, and totally ignorant of many other things. Hunger for knowledge and power, or terror of it will drive a lot of ruthless and ambitious people, while superstition, strange customs, and bizarre beliefs will drive the rest. This is the kind of game that Stars Without Number, Cha'alt and Gamma World are made for.

Books: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and sequels, Perdido Street Station, Time Snake and Superclown, Idiocracy, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon and sequels, the Brentford saga (esp. The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse and Toyminator), Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Sequels

Movies: Evolution, Zathura, Mom & Dad Save the World, Flash Gordon

Television: Rick & Morty, Doctor Who, Sliders, Farscape, Land of the Lost, Weird Science, Red Dwarf

Video Games: the Space Quest series, Paradigm 

Darkly Humorous

A darkly humorous setting will likely have incredible, sometimes impossible technology that is completely out of control and makes life harder, or bloodier, even as it is supposed to make people's lives better. People are likely to be paranoid, suspicious, bureaucratic, or incompetent in various measures. Terrible things often happen because of seemingly innocent causes once the system deals with the input. Leaders are often hypocrites who flout rules designed to control everyone else, and heroes are seen as ideal patsies. This is the kind of TTRPG that PARANOIA is made for.

Books: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul, Cat's Cradle, Bellwether, To Say Nothing of the Dog, the Illuminates! trilogy, Cugel's Saga

Movies: Brazil, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Mars Attacks, Short Circuit, Small Soldiers, Super 8, A Boy and His Dog, Starship Trooper, Men in Black, They Live

Television: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, The Tick (2018), Aeon Flux (ESP. The original Liquid Television shorts), Dead at 21, Invader Zim, Excel Saga

Video Games: Portal, also Space Quest, the Ratchet and Clank series, Destroy All Humans!


Heroic science fiction usually focuses on heroes in military conflict. The technology is usually gritty and focused on warfare and survival. Resources are scarce, and the lives of everyday people are not much better (or possibly a little worse) than today. The people in charge might be decent, but limited, or they might become increasingly power-hungry and corrupt as the story progresses. Politics will likely be complex, and the allies of the PCs nations might be morally grey. The enemy will either be on a similar footing, or they will be eminently  more powerful and mysterious. Warhammer 40,000: Dark Heresy mixes Dark Humor and Heroic ScienceFiction, Traveller and Star Adventurer are also well-suited to this genre.

Books: The Forever War, the Honor Harrington series, Starship Troopers, the Dune series

Movies: Pacific Rim, The Day After Tomorrow, Star Wars series, The Last Starfighter, Stargate, Stargate Atlantis, Independence Day

Television: Battlestar Glactica, Babylon-5, Stargate SG-1, Robotech

Video Games: Wing Commander, Mantis, the Mass Effect series, StarCraft, Starfox


Sinister Science Fiction involves strange, Dark forces, often aliens, manipulating or attacking human beings who are ill-equipped to defend themselves. This also includes stories of alien invasions when human beings are pushed to the edge of extinction (although alien invasions also tend toward heroic SF, depending on the way the story is told.) In these stories, heroes tend to be brave, but are often everyday people in extraordinary circumstances. Meanwhile, NPCs with their own agendas and neuroses often sabotage the survival of the people around them. Technology rarely provides characters with solutions to their problems in this type of story. Usually, space travel in such stories exists only to put Pcs in greater peril. This is what Mothership is made for.

Books: War of the Worlds, Who Goes There?, The Metamorphosis, The Day of the Triffids, The Andromeda Strain, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, The Game Players of Titan

Movies: Alien, Pitch Black, Forbidden Planet, Galaxy of Terror, the Predator series, Event Horizon, Cargo, Fire in the Sky, The Demon Seed, Dreamscape, Ex Machina, Terminator, The Thing, The Cube, Pandorum, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Invasion of the Body Snatvhers, Village of the Damned

Television: The X-Files, Milennium, Jeremiah

Video Games: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Soma, DOOM 3


Mysterious Science Fiction presents the characters with a mystery based on technology that we cannot fully understand or control, or puts them on an alien world or time with technology so strange or advanced it seems more like magic. If they are to escape with their minds intact, characters have to learn to think and act in a totally different way. This genre often isolates just a few characters and pits them against AI, alien intelligences, or a hostile environment.  This tone can evoke wonder or horror or both simply by putting the strange in front of players. Numenéra builds a world of mysteries and magicians technology in this style.

Books: Contact, The Left Hand of Darkness, Hyperion, the Barsoom Saga, Dhalgren, Ubik

Movies: Fantastic Planet, Annihilation, The Adventure of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension, Paprika, Existenz, The City of Ember

Television: Lost

Video Games: Antichamber, The Dig, Another World, Subnautica

This is far from a definitive list of tonrs, and, obviously,  a lot of the examples I give can fit multiple tones.

How a Thesis Can Help

If you are using a Thesis in your setting design, it will do a lot to dictate what kind of tone will work best for you. If you ask "What kind of world will we be left with after a climate disaster?" your imagination will help to select s tone.

For example, if you believe humankind will have the technological acumen to whether a climate disaster and rebuild, you might choose an optimistic tone. If you believe that humanity might be too busy screwing each other to do anything to prevent it, Dark and Desperate might be a better choice, If you decide that such a disaster might be the excuse corporations use to charge us for the very air we breathe, Darkly Humorous or Sinister might both work. If you imagine that it would lead to a terrible war for dwindling resources Heroic might work.

Your thesis might demand one particular tone. If you want to play a paranoid game where aliens infect the minds of people and use them to build some terrible device in secret, Sinister is the best option.


In my Eternal Ocean Setting, the Pcs are a part of an expedition to an Ocean planet where a colony disappeared just over eight years ago. The survey team repotprted a world with a low-salinity Ocean, Jurassic-Sea climate, low gravity, and life similar to plankton, protozoa, and algae.

When the PCs arrive, the planet is instead teeming with life, including massive oceanic dinosauroids, and bizarre biomechanical creatures, and signs of a dead, super-advanced civilizatioo6. Discovering what it means, and how to exploit the bizarre life on the planet is the only way to escape once they arrive.

I want a game built on discovery, and so I am going with a Mysterious tone. This means keeping the cast of characters small, but skilled and mostly non-combatants. They can have advanced technology that makes survival easy... but still a challenge, and certainly makes it possible for them to run into things that are beyond their comprehension.

My focus in writing the setting has to be on seeding the planet with bizarre life and artifacts that lead the PCs to discover lost secrets that will bring them ever closer to discovering the fate of the lost expedition, and how to escape the planet.


  1. Thanks for mentioning both Alpha Blue and Cha'alt, hoss!

    1. I play them and I love them! I would be a fool not to mention them.